The Myth of the Modern Knowledge Worker


From the mid-1980’s through mid-1990’s, a new type of worker evolved: The Knowledge Worker. The Knowledge Worker is the subject of lots of books– some of them even good- so I’m not going in depth into the social psychology of it all, but the Knowledge Worker was someone who was hired because of what they knew. It had little to do with aptitude or potential, but rather “We want to insert a square peg into a square hole, so let’s hire someone who can do it”. This was a vast departure from the traditional “We want to insert a square peg into a square hole, so let’s hire someone who could do it if they were trained”.

This was pre-to-primitive Internet, before you could pick the brains of millions of people, thousands of which probably know how to put square pegs in square holes. This is when no one was going to hold your hand and wipe your tears, you had to know how to do things. In the technology space, this meant you had to know how to do a lot of things. Some of us thrived in this era (although some of us wish we were born a bit earlier and could have thriven more) because we knew a lot about a lot of things. We were infinitely marketable, not because we could do things, but because we did things. Any pubescent teen with some Mountain Dew and the Internet can set up a mainframe with the help of a few thousand Internetters, but could they tear up an E6500 in a dark zone, where the only other electric-powered devices are fluorescent lights? Of course not.

Now I can hear the collective-thinkers out there rushing to defend their example-fodder brethren: After all, why shouldn’t anyone be allowed to do anything? Why should her accomplishment be any less impressive? After all, wasn’t the result the same?

Was it? Is the work done by someone who- even after they did the work- does not understand (and probably doesn’t even care) more or less valuable to an employer (and to the collective society) than the work done by someone who understood what they were doing? I know that’s a big sentence, and the collective-thinkers will need to create a new forum thread full of conjecture and group-think to fully understand it, so let me make it simple: Society needs people who do things more than people who can do things.

Perfect example: Medical doctors. I don’t know too many people who would go have surgery by someone who said “I’ve never done this before, but I googled it and I’m pretty sure I can do it.” Yes, the collective-thinkers will be upset because that is an extreme example that has life-or-death consequences, and isn’t appropriate when applied to Knowledge Workers.

Isn’t it? As a culture, a society, a workforce, if we are overrun with drones who don’t know how to do things; Who rest assured in their self-confidence believing that they know how to find how to do things. How will we move forward? How will we survive? It is a life-or-death issue of societal importance.

Working vs. Learning

Not long ago, I wrapped up a major four-position hiring consult with a client who wanted one quality software architect (high-level strategic thinkers who design large software systems) and three knowledge-worker-grade software engineers (the people who work with the aforementioned architect to produce product) who would oversee the existing sixteen-person software development staff. They were willing to pay more than the going rate for all of those positions- money was not an issue- and had applicant pools of 280 and 416 respectively: Two good engineers. That’s all they got. Not because the people didn’t look good on paper, it was because they couldn’t withstand the vetting questions: The architects couldn’t answer fundamental framework modelling questions. The engineers couldn’t answer object inheritance questions. While this may be over the heads of some people reading this, it damn well shouldn’t be for the people my client was attempting to hire. They didn’t know how to do their jobs. To my chagrin, some of the questions asked in the in-person finalist interviews were nearly identical to those asked in the phone interviews: They “knew” the answer on the phone (with a laptop in front of them) but not in person (and yes, nervousness was taken into account).

I’m a big fan of a number of buzzphrases like “on the job training” and “never stop learning” and “professional development”. I believe in all career paths, especially in technology, there is always room for improvement, for optimization, and to learn the newest ways to do what you’re doing. To a point, you’ll never – I hope – know everything you need to do a job forever. The concept of the knowledge worker is that you at least have a foundational ability to go into work today and do your job today without costing your employer money today with your need to learn something new.

Every time a wheel has to stop turning so a cog can go ask the Internet how to do their job, the flow of money goes from positive to negative instantly. The wheel is not turning. The employer is now losing money and productivity, because the wheel isn’t turning. This, of course, assumes that the cog hasn’t gotten distracted during their HOWTO session and is off checking unjobrelated headlines, their stock portfolio, or chatting with the cute administrative assistant a couple floors up. The wheel is not turning. The value of this cog to the employer is dropping fast. They’re paying for ineptitude and slacking, all under the guise of “well I had to check the Internet to see how to do something”. The wheel is not turning.

The line between knowing how to do your job, and being completely unable to get by without thousands of other people telling you how to do it, is very blurry in modern times.

The starkest reason for this is that in modern times, the knowledge worker is unobtainable. They’re either making 6-digits at a powerhouses like Google, HP, or Xerox; or they’re making hundreds of dollars an hour as consultants to everyone else who can’t afford a knowledge worker: Because we’ve stopped making new ones.

Collective Thinking

We have, as a society, shifted from being knowledge workers to collective thinkers. Anyone who works in higher education and has watched the last 5-8 years-worth of students coming into college has seen collective thinking first hand (whether they’ve recognized it or not, I won’t posit).

I remember, as a “non-traditional student” a few years ago, in the middle of an exam, a girl picked up her cell phone and started to dial it. The professor, obviously flustered by this, demand she put it away: She didn’t realize it wasn’t ok to call her friend who could help her out. Is this that show that lets you call the “lifeline”? No, it’s an examination of what you know, not what you can find out. I’m pretty far removed from K-12 education these days, but I have to assume that she got away with those ideals there.

Even when it comes to learning, that too is disposable to the collective thinker. As long as they remember where it was (or the search terms to find it), they don’t need to remember how to do something because after all: It’ll always be somewhere on the Internet. A consultant colleague of mine subcontracts with me frequently in areas that require work without a network. He gets a modest $100/hour to surf the Internet and read HOWTO’s to fix problems, but has significant troubles when there is no Internet access: Even if it’s a problem he’s fixed before. With some people I’d be afraid that “bad-mouthing” him here might cost me contracts, but he makes no bones about it. He, correctly, believes that he’s “normal”: Most consultants I work with who aren’t gray-tops have similar problems, they think it’s ok for their clients to pay them to use Google.

Forget the inevitable breakdowns of society and Apocalyptic futures, where there won’t be anywhere to search for the knowledge one has not bothered to possess- I’m not even going to get into that reality. How will we, as a society, move past the next hurricane/tidal wave/ice storm/power outage? The Internet goes offline at my place of work, and there are people pacing the halls like zombies with no corpses to feed on, slowly being sapped of their lifeblood. Sure, there are purchasing agents who use the Internet to place orders; yes, there are marketing personnel who use the Internet to canvas the competition: There ARE people whose jobs solely revolve around Internet access. Those are not the people who I’m referring to. Those people will be lost any time their tools are missing. Those of us who build and maintain their tools have no excuse… Or shouldn’t anyhow.

An apropos fortune cookie fortune I have says: If you spend all your time learning the tricks of the trade, you will never learn the trade.

Kids These Days

I’m not old, nor very far removed from recent college graduates. A significant difference between my peer group and recent graduates is “work ethic”. In conversations with my age-similar colleagues, we all observe pretty much the same thing: Recent grads don’t want to work, it’s just “what’s next”. The same generation that really only went to college because that was “what’s next” after secondary education, unsurprisingly has the same view on the workplace. There’s no pride in their work. There’s little-to-no ambition to go above-and-beyond. Work is there to provide the financial means to allow them to continue their uninspired, path-of-least-resistance “lives”. For the most part, a recent graduate’s first job out of college is their first job- The first time they’ve ever been faced with real responsibility, and the necessity of providing for themselves. They don’t want to work. They have to work.

Academia doesn’t help this. I work in “Higher Education”, and I network with colleagues throughout industry and academia: All of which say the same thing on both sides of the coin. Those in academia are clamoring that their students are unambitious and are in “need” of being sandboxed, lest an entire generation of students flunk to the standards of those that came before them. Those in industry, who hire recent graduates, are underwhelmed by the ho-hum, excitementless, droll emo attitude of their new employees: Employees who are barely competent in fundamentals that the employer needs them to have- and that they allegedly do have on paper- but that’s been disposed of. Yes, they had to take a networking course to get their Computer Science degree, but they still don’t know network speeds are measured in bits and not bytes, and as such a 1GB file should not take “only” 1 second to transfer over a 1Gb network connection. *headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk* I’m used to CS students thinking there’s something “wrong” with our network because of mismath like this, but your employer shouldn’t have to deal with such incompetency. “Higher Education” is constantly being dumbed-down to accommodate the “modern student”: More online learning, less stringent attendance policies, higher retake caps, complete bypassing of experiential education requirements, standardized testing, and fluffy brainless requirements for final projects and theses.

Not only are faculty being forced to not use red pens lest it hurt the students’ feelings, but completely failing graduation requirements still allows one to graduate. We had a student in recent years who did their “required-to-graduate final project” in the college IT department- Not only were we underwhelmed when the student had “no idea” what they wanted to do for a project (this was in an interdepartmental meeting set up specifically to accommodate the fact that this student had to graduate in May, and hadn’t worked out anything yet), but the project was never even really attempted AND the student stole the computer that we loaned him to work on (it was “returned” some time later, after a public shaming). This student was still allowed to graduate. According to colleagues at some private schools, it’s just as bad or “worse, if you count the kids of Board members who have free reign to terrorize the community”.

Students want a free lunch. They don’t want to really learn. They want to put in the time, get a pat on the back, and get on to “what’s next” – only to find out that they don’t really want that either. Academia is doing a disservice by catering to the lackadaisical desires of underachievers by reinforcing their self-centric attitudes and certifying them in the hopes that they’ll iron it out someday.

Fail students who underperform.

Don’t allow people who flagrantly disregard graduation requirements to graduate.

Use your red pen.

Make us new knowledge workers.



4 Responses to The Myth of the Modern Knowledge Worker

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